"Doctor Who" has returned! Feature-length season 8 premiere "Deep Breath" sees the twelfth Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, flirting with dinosaurs, dining with clockwork cannibals and getting in touch with his inner Scotsman. But what does this first episode tell us about the new Doctor?
If you haven't seen the episode on BBC One, BBC America or ABC yet, go and watch it on iPlayer or wherever you can. I'll wait. Seen it? OK, continue. In "Deep Breath" we're back in Victorian London investigating inexplicable disappearances uh-gain, but that's really a backdrop to the character drama unfolding around the new Doctor. It's a grotesquely beautiful and richly cinematic backdrop, as rendered by horror movie director Ben Wheatley, but a backdrop nonetheless.
There may be a new Doctor in the TARDIS, but he's surrounded by plenty of familiar faces. "Deep Breath" sees the return of Madame Vastra, prehistoric Silurian warrior turned Victorian detective, accompanied by her feisty crime-fighting partner and wife, Jenny. The scene-stealing Sontaran warrior turned manservant Strax is back, still struggling in comic fashion with the finer points of polite society, human anatomy and when it's not appropriate to dissolve people in acid.
But most of the episode's heavy lifting is done by Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara. Her world is turned upside-down by the Doctor's alarming transformation, and Coleman does a great job of showing Clara struggling to understand and deal with what is, essentially, grief. Capaldi and Coleman spark off each wonderfully, especially in a restaurant scene that turns on a sixpence from character exploration to a sinister action set-piece.
And the Doctor himself? Being the first post-regeneration episode, it's hard to get a sense of the man until all the fish-fingers-and-custard is out of the way. Capaldi does a great job of developing from confused and manic to a calmer, simmering strength, his wild-eyed showboating evolving to a flinty intensity -- only to be followed, in the closing moments, by an aching vulnerability.
Along the way, writer Steven Moffat deftly bats aside the criticisms levelled at the show in the real world, addressing and making part of the narrative Capaldi's age, the flirty relationship between the Doctor and his companions in recent years, and the new Time Lord's Scottish accent. I particularly enjoyed the hints that the Doctor's new face -- older, angrier, steelier -- reflects the darker direction he must take. For me, the episode's most chilling moment -- and there are a few -- isn't the eyeball bit or the spooky restaurant or the hot air balloon made of skin -- and they're all pretty dark, let's face it -- but the moment the Doctor angrily, selfishly demands a shivering man's coat.
Tellingly, we never actually see how the Caledonian Gallifreyan actually acquired the coat, or how the villainous robot met his apparent doom.
Did he fall or was he pushed? That's a question posed at the end of the episode, when the clockwork villain touchingly reaches the "promised land" the Doctor was so furiously adamant did not exist.
And who is the mysterious woman at the end? Is she the woman who has twice now brought the Doctor and Clara together? Or is that another Moffat red herring?
Speaking of the mysterious woman, British viewers may recognise the flashing eyes and lip-smacking Scottish tones of actress Michelle Gomez as the best thing in surreal Channel 4 hospital comedy "Green Wing". Her stately turn around the curious garden was, for me, a cliffhanger as haunting as any looming monster. Bring on next week, and the return of the Daleks!
"This reminds me of something..." Struggling with that big continuity reference? If, like the Doctor, you can't recall the exact details of the old episode referred to in "Deep Breath", don't worry: like the Doctor, we've got your back. Click here to find out who the clockwork robots of the SS Marie Antoinette really are.